Saitama Seibu LIONS
The Lions rode a solid combination of power, speed and pitching to the promised land last season and they should be right in the thick of it again in 2009.
With four of their returning starters in double-digits in wins last season--Takayuki Kishi (12), Kazuyuki Hoashi (11), Kaz Ishii (11), Hideaki Wakui (10)--and closer Alex Graman back again after posting 31 saves in 2008, pitching should not be a concern for manager Hisanobu Watanabe, a former moundsman himself.
Veteran lefty Hoashi had the lowest ERA on the squad at 2.63 while Kishi and Wakui were both among the Pacific League leaders in strikeouts with 138 and 122, respectively. Relief ace Tomoki Hoshino, who had 29 hold points a year ago, is back in the bullpen, as is veteran LHP Koji Mitsui, who failed to draw any MLB bids after being posted by the club for the second time.
On offense, shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima is coming off a monster year in which he hit .331 with 21 HRs and 25 stolen bases and portly third-baseman Takeya Nakamura whacked a league-best 46 long balls in 2008. Other offensive powers are Takumi Kuriyama (.317, 11 HRs, 17 SBs in '08) and leadoff-hitter Yasuyuki Kataoka, who hit .287 and swiped 50 bags last season, which was tops in the PL.
Craig Brazell and his 27 homers are gone, but Hiram Bocachica is back. Boca, limited to just 78 games last season due in part to his squabbles with hitting coach "Dave" Okubo, still managed to crank out 20 home runs. He should get more playing time this season, especially since Okubo has been bumped into the front office after an embarrassing episode where he allegedly hit a woman.
One big question mark is what has become of G.G. Sato? He was an offensive juggernaut in the first half of last season, however injuries and a horrendous performance at the Beijing Olympics with Team Japan seemed to conspire against the big fella as he virtually disappeared in the second half. If he can get his mojo back, he will be another weapon in Watanabe's vast arsenal.
As for new additions, John Wasdin, a former Yomiuri Giants right-hander, has joined the team after kicking around North America's minor leagues for a few years. Also, ex-Giants outfielder Takayuki Shimizu is now in the Lions' den, but he is far from an impact player.
Manager Watanabe, a laid-back individual who looks like he should have a surfboard tucked under his arm, deserves much credit for the team's recent success, having created an atmosphere that the players really seem to enjoy. Of course, it's always more fun when you win.
With aging sluggers Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera, Jose Fernandez and Greg LaRocca on the squad, the Buffs' trainer may be the busiest guy on the team this year ... better stock up on liniment.
Also, keep a lot of baseballs on hand because they will be flying out of PL ballparks in quick succession when the Buffaloes hit town.
Manager Daijiro Oishi stepped in last year when Terry Collins abruptly announced he was quitting the job in May, and Oishi proved more than capable, leading Orix to a second-place finish and a playoff berth.
Rhodes, who smacked 40 home runs at the age of 40 last season, has the added bonus of not counting against the club's foreign-player quota, having played in Japan for a dozen years. Cabrera also went yard with great frequency last year, clubbing 36 taters, while Fernandez hit 18 HRs and drove in 99 runs last season in Sendai with the Eagles. With Rhodes (118 RBIs in '08), Cabrera (104) and Fernandez, the team will be able to roll out three of the top four run-producers in the league from last year.
Pitching-wise, Orix also acquired a proven foreign player when they added former Hanshin Tigers right-hander Ryan Vogelsong to the mix. He should complement Satoshi Komatsu, who won 15 games last season on his way to being named PL Rookie of the Year. RHP Chihiro Kaneko won 10 games for the club last year as did veteran lefty Shogo Yamamoto.
Infielder Mitsutaka Goto hit .285 with 13 steals last year, but if he can get on base in 2009, he may find himself trotting home more often this year.
Like a big ol' 1968 Dodge Charger with a 426 Hemi engine under the hood, this team was built for power, not durability. With all the firepower Oishi has at his disposal, this team could easily put at least five runs on the board every night, which takes a lot of pressure off the pitching staff.
Former Baltimore Orioles reliever Jon Leicester was signed by the club over the offseason, while RHP Tom Davey, who had shoulder problems, is gone. NPB idol Kazuhiro Kiyohara has--thankfully--retired.
Tohoku Rakuten GOLDEN EAGLES
The Eagles will have a solid one-two punch again this year on the mound in right-handers Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka.
Iwakuma, coming off an MVP season in which he won 21 games, was impressive in Japan's recent WBC victory, where he posted a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings of work. "Ma-kun," as the 20-year-old Tanaka is affectionately known by Eagles fans, won 11 games then nine in his first two years of pro ball, striking out 355 batters in the process.
Darrell Rasner, a 27-year-old right-hander from the New York Yankees organization, has been added to the mix, which should give crusty skipper Katsuya Nomura three solid starters.
Offensively, sparkplug Rick Short brings his league-leading .332 batting average back to Sendai. While well-traveled slugger Jose Fernandez has moved to the Orix Buffaloes, veteran third-baseman Norihiro Nakamura slides over from the Chunichi Dragons and Panamanian switch-hitter Fernando Seguignol is back after dividing last season between the Mexican League, the Detroit Tigers and Rakuten.
Righties Matt Childers and Marcus Gwynn have also been signed to bolster the bullpen, while another right-hander, Domingo Guzman, is gone.
On the basepaths, speedy infielder Naoto Watanabe should once again make things happen--he had 34 stolen bases in '08--and Yosuke Takasu (.282 avg. in 2008) and Teppei Tsuchiya (.270) can both swing a mean bat. And, of course, let's not forget evergreen infielder/ DH Takeshi Yamasaki, who clubbed 26 HRs and drove in 80 runs last season at the tender age of 40.
The Eagles signed second-baseman Makoto Kosaka in the offseason from the Yomiuri Giants. A former 56-base stealer, Kosaka has seen his career decline sharply over the past few years after a promising start in Chiba. Not sure what his role will be on the club, or if he even has one.
If their starters can get the job done, as expected, look for the Eagles to make some noise in the Pacific League this season. Playoffs, here we come!
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham FIGHTERS
They still have the most dominating pitcher in the land in Yu Darvish, but beyond that, it gets a little thin.
Darvish put up another fantastic year in 2008, ending up with 16 wins, 208 strikeouts and a measly 1.88 ERA. After that, Brian Sweeney, another right-hander, was the team's most effective starter, going 12-5.
For some reason, the team saw fit to trade closer Micheal Nakamura, one of the top shut-down men in the league over the last few seasons, to the Yomiuri Giants for veteran infielder Tomohiro Nioka, who was drummed out of Tokyo after becoming embroiled in a sex scandal with a TV announcer.
The team also let Ryan Glynn go, where he joined the BayStars after chalking up 16 wins in 49 starts over the past two seasons in Hokkaido.
Lefty Masanori Hayashi is also in the fold, part of the Nakamura-Nioka deal, and LHP Ryan Wing has been plucked from the Oakland A's system.
On offense, outfielder Atsunori Inaba is the man for Masataka Nashida's club. In 2008, Inaba led the club in average (.301), home runs (20) and RBIs (82).
Infielder Kensuke Tanaka rebounded to have a fine season last year and he will be counted on to spark the offense once again.
Both Jason Botts and Terrmel Sledge are back and if Botts, a switch-hitting mountain of a man at nearly 2 meters and 113 kilograms, can to adjust to Japanese pitching, he could put up some big numbers.
Shortstop Makoto Kaneko should provide stability up the middle, but injuries limited the veteran to fewer than 100 games in 2008.
Another question mark is OF Hichori Morimoto, a flamboyant character who keyed the Fighters' run to the Japan Series title in 2006 from the leadoff spot. His average, however, plummeted nearly 50 points last season from the .300 he hit in 2007.
It may be a little early to talk of the club returning to the glory years of Trey Hillman, but at least the eyes of the nation--as well as the growing throng of MLB scouts--will be firmly focussed on the Sapporo Nine once a week when No. 11 gets ball.
Chiba Lotte MARINES
With a lame-duck manager piloting the club, don't expect too much from the Marines this season ... unless, of course, they want to send skipper Bobby V out in a blaze of glory.
The announcement by Lotte brass that this would be Valentine's last year in charge of the club, regardless of how they finish, has cast a pall over the season before it even starts. Valentine, a popular figure in Makuhari, seems to have worn out his welcome, and management has seized on the team's fourth-place finish in 2008 to ease him out the door.
How will the players react? It remains to be seen, of course, but I can almost hear the sound of air sucking through teeth as I write this.
The big acquisition for the Marines over the offseason was veteran infielder Tadahito Iguchi, a man accustomed to playing a position (second base) that the Marines seemed to be solid at. Iguchi, a former Hawks' shortstop who was on two World Series winners in his four years in MLB--the Chicago White Sox in 2005, in which he was a major contributor, and the Phillies last season, in which he was a major spectator--inked a three-year deal with the Chiba club and should provide some veteran leadership.
Shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka and third-baseman Toshiaki Imae form a formidable left side of the infield ... when they are on their games, that is. Catcher Tomoya Satozaki is one of the best at his position in Japan, but a sore elbow limited him to 92 games in 2008.
On the mound, lefty Yoshihisa Naruse is struggling with an injured biceps, but submariner Shunsuke Watanabe will be good to go, as will the up-and-down starter Hiroyuki Kobayashi, who went 5-12 last year after averaging over 10 wins a season in the previous five campaigns. Veteran RHP Naoyuki Shimizu won 13 games for the club in 2008 and the reliable Brian Sikorski will be in Bobby V's bullpen again.
OF Benny Agbayani returns for a sixth season and import infielders Gary Burnham Jr., and Chase Lambin have been brought in. Neither man has any MLB experience but both hit .300 or better last year, Burnham in Taiwan and Lambin in Triple-A.
Fukuoka Softbank HAWKS
New hawks skipper Koji Akiyama inherits a ballclub with plenty of holes to fill, and he may have a few more before the thermometer hits 30 degrees.
A year after sending legendary player/ manager Sadaharu Oh off into the baseball sunset with a last-place finish, Akiyama should not expect much better treatment in 2009.
Pesky little shortstop Munenori Kawasaki will be doing his thing again at the top of the order, which is getting on base and disrupting defenses, but the middle of the order features aging sluggers Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Hiroki Kokubo. Both men were among the NPB elite in their prime, but that was then, this is now. They are in their mid-30s and they both have a history of getting hurt, as does slugging outfielder Hitoshi Tamura.
Second-baseman Yuichi Honda racked up 29 stolen bases last year, 10 more than Kawasaki, so the team does have some speed on the basepaths.
On the mound, lefty Kenji Otonari was the Hawks most effective hurler last year, posting 11 wins. Akiyama will be hoping that starter Kazumi Saito and closer Takahiro Mahara can return to their former glory.
While RHP DJ Houlton is a holdover from last year, four foreign pitchers--Jeremy Powell, Rick Guttormson, CJ Nitkowski and Jason Standridge--were given their walking papers, as was OF Michael Restovich.
New to Fukuoka this season are right-handed pitchers Justin Germano, Kameron Loe and Brian Falkenborg, as well as free-agent outfielder Chris Aguila.
The Hawks swapped outfielders with Orix in the offseason, shipping Naoyuki Omura to Kobe in exchange for Arihito Muramatsu.
With expectations so low, it might be an ideal situation for Akiyama to get his feet wet as a manager. As a premier outfielder with the Lions and Hawks, the athletic Akiyama was known for doing backflips on the field. The way this season is shaping up for his squad, it may not be long before he is flipping out once again.